Dan Kelly has spent his life running, a hobby turned obsession that for him is “like hibernating—the warm blood rustle, the feathery breathing”; it offers refuge from the impenetrable aura of his father, Stony, a pioneer of chaos theory. But when Stony dies, it’s Dan’s wife, Alicia, who runs—abandoning their Los Alamos home for her New York roots. They dispatch their oddly sagacious teenage son, Max, to a boarding school of his choosing; he picks a Quaker institution in Pennsylvania, where he remains laconic and aloof, escaping often to Oakhurst, the dilapidated nursing home where he volunteers and hangs out with “ ‘his people,’ the ones on the margin.”
Earle’s delicate exploration of the hurt and coping that ensue when “your main bet in life has fallen apart” should render the story of husband, wife, and son touching. But this book is too smart to be merely touching. Buttressed by a supporting cast that borders on grotesque, The Way Home is positively gripping, if also disturbing.
There’s Benjamin, Alicia’s brilliantly crude lover, as obese in ego as in weight. Dan becomes intertwined with the Alling family, a paradigm of dysfunctional wealth, complete with a lewd, cocaine-snorting daughter. More sinister are Max’s “people” at Oakhurst, including Dr. Seneca Sussex, the charming yet cunning director who reveals everything in his “map of a face: the guile, the addiction, the rueful resignation.” Sid Farmer is an idiosyncratic reporter who wants to expose Sussex—and uses Max as a pawn. “You want out of innocence,” Sid tells him, “but when your moral virginity pops, it bleeds all over you, and a guy like Seneca can smell it.”
Under another author’s pen, these characters’ ugliness and eccentricity might have turned me off. Instead, Earle infuses them with such humility that I found myself empathizing. As Sid says, “the most fascinating people are always monstrous.”